A few years back I was invited to receive an award for the work I did with women in business. I was thrilled. I'd planned a lovely story to share with the audience about how I inadvertently caused a political problem with tampon tax. It's a funny story. When I arrived at the venue I was overwhelmed. I was told it was a 2-star hotel venue. However… It wasn't. It was a 5-star hotel, and I wasn't appropriately dressed. Not a problem, I could run out at lunchtime and buy an appropriate dress to wear in the afternoon. Problem solved! Erm, no, not quite. All the talks and stories were religious. There's a lot of praise the Lord chants shared by the audience as the speakers shared their stories. I thought I was going to cry. With more time, my story would've fit the audience. My anecdotes could've been linked back to the Bible, and I could have mentioned that I'd needed the patience of Job to achieve some of the things that I had… Instead, I had my funny story, which involved governments, politicians, VAT and tampons, very few relatable bits for the audience of male businessmen, and whilst I may now have the right clothes, I sure as heck didn't have the right story…
One of the biggest things that hold people back as storytellers are fears they have related to public speaking in general. Things like the fear of forgetting the content, that the audience will hate you, self-doubt and of course, fear of the unexpected! All these fears, and other public speaking fears are understandable, but at some point, you have to move past them and learn how to take a deep breath and carry on.
A common fear that many people face when it comes to public speaking, in general, is an uninterested audience and I was staring this one right in the eye! Not only is it awkward to have to deal with a crowd that doesn’t care, but it can also be genuinely heartbreaking. When you think you’re giving a great performance and telling a great story, but look into the audience and see people leaving or yawning, it can be a massive blow to your ego and can make you reconsider everything you’re doing. Of course, it may not be you making them yawn or leave but it certainly feels that way when you see it! First, you need to consider the possibilities behind people’s actions. Depending on the time of day, people might be leaving to go deal with important responsibilities, while others might be yawning because they’ve been up all night rather than bored.
This can help make it feel like less of a personal attack, which is where the bulk of the fear comes from. Generally speaking, if you take it personally, it’ll hurt you emotionally. If you think about it logically, it won’t hurt you at all. You shouldn’t be too hasty to dismiss audience reactions, though. Sometimes it can be an important indicator that you’re not performing as you ought to be and can be a sign to change some things up in your story.
Another fear that’s very common in storytelling specifically is choking. A lot of times, stories you tell will be about events in your life that were very tragic or traumatic, and it can bring back a lot of emotion when you talk about it. Getting choked up is normal and nothing to be outwardly ashamed of, as long as you’re not full-blown crying up on stage because this can get very messy and you don't ever want to be known as the person who cried your heart out on stage. It shows the audience that you’re being genuine and vulnerable, and can really help emphasize your story. As you continue to tell your stories more and more, you’ll choke up less and less since you’re getting used to telling them. This does take time and practice, though, so don’t expect it to change overnight.
Sometimes you also just have to accept the fact that there might be something that goes wrong in your story or you’ll just happen to get a bad audience. These things are bound to happen if you spend enough time speaking publicly.
Even though there are things you can do to help prevent it, it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll have a rough crowd. Being afraid or nervous about it isn’t going to help, and in fact, it’ll only make things worse.
As for me, I told a different, unprepared story that day. I talked about suffering from depression. I spoke about sometimes you have to light your own path and hope that the light attracts others that are lost and that you find the way together. It wasn't my best story. And yes I cried. A little bit. If I cry, I get snotty, so I had to hold it all in. Everyone clapped enthusiastically, and there was hallelujah instead of praise the Lord. I felt underprepared, underdressed and overwhelmed yet I faced my fears and told a slightly new story for the audience. The audience didn't eat me alive, the world did not end and I made new friends and gained new clients. I did not mention the word tampon once.
Sure your fears may come true, but it's how you approach them that makes the difference.